Israel Independence Day celebration met with student protest

(From left) Students for Justice in Palestine co-directors Yusuf Irshaad and Rawan Masri protested at McCarthy Quad Tuesday. (Sasha Urban/Daily Trojan)

USC Hillel hosted Israelpalooza, its annual celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, or Israel Independence Day, at McCarthy Quad Tuesday. The event featured live music, Middle Eastern cuisine and guests representing Chabad and the Zionist Organization of America, among other organizations. As event-goers celebrated Israel, a group of students carried signs, banners and Palestinian flags in protest of the event, Birthright Israel and the country’s continued expansion into the West Bank and Gaza.

Israelpalooza organizers said the event was “non-political” and meant to be a fun celebration of Israel and its role in the world. But protestors said the event was inherently political, citing the history of Palestinian displacement in the region.

Nearly 3,500 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces in the last ten years, according to the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. Over 400,000 Israeli nationals currently live in the West Bank, which is in violation of the Geneva Convention of 1949, according to the American Journal of International Law.

“From an outsider’s point of view, you see Israelpalooza, you see people eating cotton candy and playing music, but there’s a violent reality and a violent history that goes in hand with that,” said Yusuf Irshaad, co-president of Students for Justice in Palestine. “While people are celebrating Israelpalooza, there are still Palestinians who are in refugee camps.”

The three-hour event saw students lining up for free falafel, hummus and frozen coffee, playing bean bag toss and listening to live music. Protestors affiliated with SJP sat directly across the quad raising Palestinian flags and signs. Earlier in the day, other students — affiliated with the activist group IfNotNow — dropped a banner that read: “Birthright: Last Chance, Confront the Crisis #JewishResistance.”

USC Hillel Executive Director Bailey London said her organization aims to educate the public about Israel in a nonpartisan way that lets them form their own opinions.

“As a Jewish organization on campus, we feel connected to [Israel], and we wanted to share what we love about it,” London said.

Though Israelpalooza has seen protests in the past, London said Hillel avoids engaging with them.

“I feel deeply that every student organization has a right to exist on campus,” London said. “They’re respecting our space — they have a right to be on campus too — I just hope they don’t make any students feel uncomfortable.”

Ellie Schneider, USC Hillel’s VP of Israel Affairs, coordinated the event. She said she invited a number of external organizations, such as Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and StandWithUs — a nonprofit pro-Israel organization — to help attendees better engage with Israeli culture.

“We wanted this event to not be political,” said Schneider, a sophomore majoring in public relations. “This is a celebration of Israel, it’s a celebration of Israel’s independence, it’s a celebration of Israel’s role in the world.”

After decades of Jewish exodus from Europe in response to rising anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, Israel gained its independence as the Jewish homeland on May 14, 1948, following a United Nations partition of Palestine. Schneider said the event was held a month early to avoid conflicting with final exams.

Palestinians refer to May 15 as the nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe,” in memory of the 700,000 Palestinians who were displaced as a result of Palestine’s 1947 partitioning. Today, there are over 5 million Palestinian refugees, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

“People can talk about Israel without even acknowledging Palestine,” Irshaad said. “But any time you talk about Palestine, it’s always linked to Israel, and that within itself shows the power dynamic.”

Ben Barov, a junior majoring in economics, attended the event with three other students to protest the nonprofit Birthright Israel, which sponsors a 10-day trip to Israel for Jewish adults between the ages of 18 and 32, according to its website. Birthright is funded by the Israeli government, various organizations and private donors.

Barov said he was inspired by IfNotNow’s #NotJustAFreeTrip campaign, which calls for Birthright to modify its trip to educate participants on the realities of the Israeli occupation before April 5, when “hundreds of young American Jews will gather at Birthright headquarters” to protest, according to the initiative’s website.

“The Israelpalooza event is totally inappropriate,” Barov said. “USC is lagging behind on the issue of Israel. And that’s unfortunate. That’s why IfNotNow’s role is especially important [at] USC.”

Schneider said the Birthright table was meant to provide attendees with a “first taste” of Israel, since the trip is only available to people who have not previously visited the country.

Former Undergraduate Student Government Sen. Shayan Kohanteb said he enjoyed the event because it represented Jewish values like “giving back” and “being eco-friendly.”

“Different events have been happening where SJP has made Jewish students feel unsafe, but we focus on the positivity,” Kohanteb said. “We don’t even think about it, because, why should we? … [Israel] is a melting pot, just like America … We want everyone to see that there are similarities between America and Israel.”

A previous version of this article included an incorrect statistic from the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. The article also stated that most Palestinians consider the West Bank to be their rightful homeland. According to international law, it is their land. The article has been updated to reflect both changes. The Daily Trojan regrets the errors.